A small compendium of thoughts and details to look for in a listening device
Welcome to my semi-technical contribution to this blog. Before anyone gets too worried, I’d like to point out that most of the hardcore specifications are out there already, and can be readily accessed by anyone who is interested. Also, I will not be dealing with microphones here though I agree that they are to play an increasingly active role in the personal repertoire of an interpreter’s toolkit, whereas traditionally these are supplied by the venue. Perhaps next time. The landscape I am imagining is a home/office-based relatively quiet one, in line with the platform hosting this article. It would be impossible and unnecessary to cover the entire range available, so I will use the examples I own, have owned or have tested as a guide (I say have owned as wear and tear and loss must be part of our considerations; I say have tested as I have a habit of arriving early at airports and spending the time trying out headphones in the tech-outlets). I have been carefully noting points about quality over more than ten years as an interpreter and much previously in an incarnation as a musician, and I thank Babelverse who have commissioned this article for the opportunity to put everything on a few pages. They are about the small things that count, like most of what I enjoy writing about.
I have chosen to use a stream of consciousness technique, since I am not sure about my readership – basically my own flow when choosing. Naturally this post will be open for comments, and I shall do my best. Let me say right away that there is no perfect pair, so I have chosen to highlight the features I look out for and readers can use them as a checklist when making their choice. Perhaps followers will add links to maker’s websites below. This will be useful as I’m not going to deal with price here either, except to say that it is generally not a guide for quality, as most headphones are geared towards music enjoyment.
The main difference between using a listening device for music and for interpreting is the fact that in the latter configuration you need to be speaking whist you listen. The good thing is most devices can be tested by plugging in your player at the shop. Do so by listening to an audio book with a variety of male and female voices, not music – it does make a difference. I have found this to be true for the Livescribe proprietary earphones supplied with their Echo smartpen, whose ability to reproduce the human voice is stunning, whilst the music interface available through their app store enabling you to use the pen as an mp3 player will at best gives you an intercom feel.
The picture also shows the in-line clip some earphones have to keep the cable tidy. It will make a difference in terms of durability (you won’t kink the cable so much, or lose the tips), ease of use and hygiene. I only mention this product in passing, as you are unlikely to buy it unless you are into pen-assisted sim-consec technique, in which case you may be tempted to use it.
Earphones, or “in ear” means these are held in place by pressing into the ear. Most feature a silicon tip nowadays. They come in various sizes for comfort. Whilst this is helpful in insulating from outside background noise, it does increase cable noise and a certain wind-tunnel effect when moving. Some interpreters find them difficult to handle as they can only be worn in one way, i.e. they do not allow you to leave part or all of one ear open, to listen to yourself. This problem is solved where the earphone clips over or around the ear. A classic example are Bang&Olufsen A8 – still widely used today. I remember purchasing my first pair for listening to music, only to find them a year later displayed in the same shop window as headphones for interpreters. I know people who have bought them as a status symbol, but this too will come to an end if remote platforms have their way, it seems…
What the image does not show is that they also swivel along a horizontal axis and can be moved away from the ear canal, thus fulfilling the need mentioned above. Working from home means conservative colours are no longer a problem even if you are translating Heads of State! Which neatly brings me to my first on/over ear model: House of Marley’s Soul Rebel.
Iconographic and environmental/humanitarian considerations aside (all materials are recycled and proceeds go to a Jamaican charity), these are certainly the best for sound quality and comfort. The difference between on and over ear is perhaps obvious, but it will depend on how big your ear is. The main feature I think worth considering is that on ear works well if you are wearing glasses, the larger over ear less so. The aforementioned B&O can also present a problem in this sense. With most headphones, the band is made of metal, and can be easily stretched if like me you need a little extra room – that would be the cover picture at the top of this article.
Why is the cable important? Two reasons, apart from the obvious considerations regarding length: when operating on a small portable device such as a smartphone, this will need to be propped up. A heavy or heavily kinked cable will cause it to collapse. The second is the size of the jack-plug: the outer rubber cover may vary quite a lot in size, and this may not always fit well into the body of your device, especially if it has a cover. Here it is safe to say that smaller is better. So why not opt for cable free use? Bluetooth technology provides a decent though not perfect sound experience, as in my SonyDT-BT10CX.
Leaving aside the interesting problem that this type of headphone is not appreciated in focus groups as the constant flashing light they all have gives the game away to the other side of the one way mirror, caution is advised – there is still a cable, around your neck, though not connected to your main device. Honestly though, there is really no need to wander 20 metres from your position, nor for the stress the clip will generate if you are not wearing the right sort of clothing – even a T-shirt or any item with no collar will eventually get tedious and compromise comfort. The battery will run out when you are speaking, and charging it especially for each gig when it is not depleted will shorten its life significantly. It is not replaceable. Next, it only works with phones and tablets, not with traditional sim-booth control panels, since there is no transmission of a Bluetooth signal from them. And even your iPad’s battery life will suffer greatly. Naturally, air travel is out. Lastly, an in-line volume control seems a good idea, as in the Sony’s above ad the Samsung earpieces provided as standard with their devices below.
It is also in keeping with the idea that it is probably best not to touch a screen in a small interface during a call, as this might cause unwanted operation. But look again: the microphone resides exactly behind the volume control.
In practical terms, you are going to disturb the listener every time you adjust the volume, if you are using the microphone.
Back to batteries: there are other uses for a battery in ear-wear. One is Active Noise Cancelling. Faithful to my promise of lightness here, suffice it to say that there is a microphone exactly before the ear canal filtering through background noise. But there shouldn’t be any noise though unless you are on a plane, and perhaps you should not be interpreting here. I would however like to dispel a myth: it is said that it will cancel out your own voice as well. What happens is in fact the opposite: as your voice will be louder from the inside, it will be a problem exactly because it is too much, and will cause you to turn up the volume unnecessarily. Here are my SonyMDR NC 13. Ah, yes, they have a clip – see below.
By the way, volume… I find in most devices an option to regulate bass and treble exists, and interpreters don’t play enough with it. Depending on various factors, a higher bass will enable clearer hearing without going too hard on the eardrums. I will say more about this if you ask me to.
Finally, my toy for the moment: UrbanearsPlattan – minimalist Swedish design.
They fold beautifully, and have quite a lot of the qualities listed above, with the added one of a one-sided fabric cable – just in case like me Italian is your thing and you like to wave your arms about on the job. What a shame I’m doing it just for myself, it just doesn’t feel the same…
~ Martin Esposito